Think These Cars Are Safe? Think Again

Car safety is an area in which technology is constantly improving. Seat belts, air bags, crumple zones, and other technological advances have combined to drive both the injury rate and the fatality rate in vehicles ever lower. It’s never been a safer time to get behind the wheel of a new car.

That said, some vehicles are still safer than others… often to a unpleasantly surprising degree. And a recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety — one of the most respected safety authorities out there — demonstrated that when it comes to safety, you don’t necessarily get what you pay for.

About the Study
They tested a collection of 2013 model sedans; both family sedans from companies such as Toyota and Honda, and high-end luxury sedans from marques such as Audi and Lexus. The cars were ranked as “good,” “acceptable,” “marginal,” or “poor” in a variety of crash situations, such as rollovers, side impacts, and front crashes.

At specific issue were “overlap” or “partial” collisions, namely where the front of a car doesn’t fully hit a barrier or obstacle, but only part of it. This is problematic for many cars because it means one crumple zone has to absorb all the kinetic energy.

The Results
Let’s start with the good news for those of us who plan to get a good, reliable mid-size family sedan. The Honda Accord 4-door sedan got a good rating across the board, while the Chrysler 200, Dodge Avenger, Accord 2-door, Kia Optima, Ford Fusion, Subaru Legacy, Subaru Outback, and Volkswagen Passat got a Good in all other categories and an Acceptable when it came to partial collisions.

But, as you might have guessed, the cars of the rich weren’t exactly up to their snooty reputation.

The surprise, at least to the IIHS, were the results for the luxury cars. Of the cars they tested in the luxury or near-luxury category, only the Acura TL and the Volvo S60 managed to survive the tests with the best ratings across the board. The Acura TSX and its Sport version, Lincoln MKZ, BMW 3 series, and Volkswagen CC, all came away with good ratings except for the overlap crashes, which scored them a “Marginal.”

The rest of the models tested? Poor. In fact, the Infiniti G, and Lexus ES 350 and IS 250/350 models didn’t even pull Good ratings across the board, unlike their compatriots in the luxury category.

Lessons Learned
What can we take away from all this?

  1. Even the worst car on here has seen its safety substantially improve over the time it’s been available, according to the IIHS’s own data. Cars are getting safer, it’s just that some have substantial room for improvement.
  2. Money isn’t everything. It’s true, in some cases, that luxury cars are at the cutting edge of automotive technology, but they’re not the be-all and end-all of it. Also, handling “overlap” crashes safely is very much a work in progress for each automaker.
  3. The real lesson here is that if you’re buying a new car, do your homework and do it carefully. Don’t make assumptions: Look for hard data and tests. Call your auto insurance company and find out which cars get you lower insurance rates because of safety features. Otherwise, you may be putting yourself at risk without even knowing it.

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